The drama Skin is a well-performed, interesting true story about the ridiculousness of apartheid and racism in general set against the backdrop of three decades in South Africa. It is the tale of a woman caught between races – accepted and then discarded by both. There is inherent dramatic power in the tale of Sandra Laing and the performances in Skin are admirable, but the film never finds the emotional chords that could have elevated it to more than just a "good drama." There are elements that hint at a movie that could have been truly powerful instead of merely admirable. Skin is an interesting case of a film that doesn't really have too much wrong with it but is missing that variable to take it a step beyond. I admire Skin and would ultimately recommend it to fans of the stars or biographical drama in general but the scope of the film and the episodic storytelling within it keep it from getting out of first gear and becoming the truly memorable film that it could have been.
The debut feature by Anthony Fabian tries to tell most of the life story of Sandra Laing (Sophie Okonedo as an adult), a girl born in apartheid South Africa to white parents (Sam Neill and Alice Krige) but with decidedly black pigmentation. The unusual family blames genetic irregularity and the laws are changed in the country to dictate that a person's race will be based not on the apparent color of their skin but of their parents’. In other words, Sandra, by all appearances a black girl, becomes a white girl in the eyes of South African law. Naturally, life for Sandra is not easy, as she's constantly treated like someone who shouldn't be there. The first act of the film details a ten-year-old Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) dealing with the racism that was so much a backbone of the country as she is teased by both students and teachers and has to listen to lectures about the inadequacy of the black people. When she's abused in front of the class by a teacher, she is expelled and her father fights to get the laws changed without realizing that just because a person is called white it doesn't mean that they will necessarily be treated so.
The story of Sandra's plight as a child changing laws in South Africa might have been interesting enough for one film, but it is merely the first act of a very defined three-act structure to Skin. The second focuses on Sandra's own father turning against her when she takes up with a black produce-seller (Tony Kgoroge) who he had forbidden her from dating. They are constantly trying to set Sandra up with white men who mistreat her but they won't let her date a black man. When Sandra comes home pregnant with the seller's child, she is expelled from her home and finds herself moving from a white community to a black one. Things get even worse there as anti-apartheid stress comes down to bear on Sandra, who many see as white because of her background. The film culminates in the 1994 racially nonexclusive free elections.
It's a lot for one movie. Clearly, Sandra's journey is a fascinating spotlight on how racism can pervade both sides of the issue. She wasn't white enough for her boarding school and wasn't black enough for her husband. Her story is a wonderful parable for the stupidity of labeling people black or white in the first place. And Okonedo (so great in Hotel Rwanda) is perfectly cast, selling every dramatic twist and turn of this character who would have merely become a symbolic plot device in the hands of a lesser actress. Neill, Krige, and Kgoroge are all effective as well.
Perhaps it's the massive scope of a story that spans three decades and purports to at least partially serve as a symbol for a country's struggle with racism and apartheid, but Skin never got under mine like I hoped it would. It's a good film that could have been great with a little more focus on the people instead of the situation that changed their lives. The little moments like when Okonedo smiles as her suitor shows her how to dance in a car are the ones that stand out because they offer three-dimensionality to a story that can feel awfully surface level, simply due to how much of it there is to tell. Great performances and a smart decision to avoid melodrama make Skin worth seeing but it’s the small things that hold it back from being truly great.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: November 13th, 2009
Starring: Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, Alice Krige, and Tony Kgoroge
Director: Anthony Fabian
Writers: Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, and Helena Kriel